ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Belmont County officials in June charged Eugene Blake with the 1982 slaying of 21-year-old Bridgeport resident Mark Withers - but the story evolved into much more than a typical murder case.
A three-part investigative report by the Sunday News-Register called "The Killer Con Man" shined light on a murderer named Eugene Blake who gained the confidence of prison officials while incarcerated at the former state penitentiary in Moundsville. He enjoyed unusual privileges and freedoms and, then, used that to charm hundreds of Ohio Valley residents into lobbying the governor to grant him a pardon.
The results would be deadly.
Blake, 63, of Huntington, brutally murdered Donna Jean Ball, an 18-year-old telephone operator, on Jan. 15, 1967, in Wayne County, W.Va.
Trial testimony revealed he stabbed the victim eight times in the chest but she garnered up strength to identify him before dying in the back seat of a good samaritan's car. The murder resulted in a sentence of life without mercy for Blake - meaning no chance of parole - in the West Virginia Penitentiary on March 29, 1968.
During the next six years, Blake convinced prison officials that he was worthy of trusty status. They agreed, making him possibly the first life without mercy prisoner in West Virginia to be granted such status.
Eventually, he was allowed to live outside the prison's walls, taking up residence first in the guards' barracks and then in the warden's home.
In 1974-75, Blake took part in plays at Towngate Theatre, Wheeling College and Bethany College. He had the freedom to come and go from the prison as he pleased, unchaperoned, in a state-owned vehicle. He also did volunteer work for local organizations and attended public events at the Capitol Music Hall in Wheeling.
Blake never attempted to escape, as he pointed out in an October 1976 letter to then-Gov. Arch Moore of Glen Dale asking for his sentence to be commuted to life with mercy. From 1972 until 1976, Moore followed the West Virginia Board of Probation and Parole's recommendation against granting Blake any form of executive clemency. However, on Dec. 23, 1976, near the end of his term as governor, Moore went against the parole board and commuted Blake's sentence. This came after an extensive letter writing and petition campaign to the governor by many prominent community members in Ohio and Marshall counties.
Blake was granted parole in February 1979 with stipulations he would later violate, but he was not sent back to prison. After residing in Morgantown, he returned to Wheeling in 1982, one week before the Withers murder.
Blake killed 13-year-old Maryann Hope Helmbright in Wheeling on Oct. 17, 1984, a crime for which he currently is serving another life sentence - this time with mercy, with parole a possibility in 2011.
Blake was indicted in June by a Belmont County grand jury for the March 19, 1982, murder of Withers at Gould Park in Bridgeport.
The indictment came after an exhaustive investigation by Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation Agent Charles Snyder and DNA evidence linked Blake to the crime.
In addition to being charged with murdering Withers, Blake is believed to have raped Withers' 17-year-old companion. No rape charges were filed by Belmont County Prosecutor Chris Berhalter because Ohio law has a statute of limitations on such crimes.
Blake remains in custody in West Virginia pending extradition proceedings.
Berhalter, who intends to seek the death penalty against Blake, initiated action with Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland's office to obtain a governor's warrant against Blake to force his return to Ohio. The process calls for Strickland's office to work with West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin's office to facilitate Blake's transfer to Ohio.
On Sept. 9, Manchin signed the warrant authorizing an agreement with the state of Ohio, but the move was again delayed after Blake appeared for an extradition hearing on Oct. 4 before Fayette County Circuit Judge John Hatcher. Blake claimed he could not remember events on the night of Withers' murder.
Hatcher ordered psychological and psychiatric evaluations to determine if Blake was competent to communicate with his attorneys regarding the extradition process.
Hatcher's Nov. 12 order stated that Dr. Douglas Eitel would evaluate Blake on Nov. 14 at the Mount Olive Correctional Facility in Fayette County. The order further stipulated that Eitel would have full access to Blake and full access to any medical records from any facility where Blake has been treated for any medical or psychological condition.
Blake's court-appointed attorney, Fayette County Public Defender Nancy S. Fraley, said Eitel went to Mount Olive but prison officials refused to provide Blake's medical and psychological records because they had not received a copy of Hatcher's order. She said the standard to prove grounds for extradition is low.
"They only have to show if the defendant understands his surroundings and the primary players in the courtroom," Fraley said. "It also has to be established that the defendant has a perception of the difference between right and wrong, if what he is accused of is a crime and whether or not he was at or near the crime scene."
She said her office has found nothing improper in Blake's extradition paperwork, but there may be one issue that could further delay or prohibit his return to Ohio.
"The only issue we have deals with how the extradition law works in conjunction with the interstate detainer law," she said.
She said it is possible Blake may be retained in West Virginia to complete his sentence for the Helmbright murder.
He is serving 15 years to life and is eligible for parole in 2011. If parole is denied, Blake could remain in the West Virginia penal system until the end of his life.